World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 45, May 2015

In this issue:

  1. From the Editor
  2. Book Review
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Conference


In 1994, beginning with issue number 19, Jock Galloway and I took over from Bill Albert and Adrian Graves as editors of the World Sugar History Newsletter. For the past almost twenty-one years we have been pursuing the objectives set out by our predecessors, providing book reviews, lists of recent publications, conference announcements and reports, museum descriptions, pictures, and other elements related to the history of sugar. From 2007, beginning with number 36, we switched from a printed to an on-line edition, responding to the opportunities of modern technology as well as to rising postal costs. In recent years our output has unfortunately become more and more sporadic, a result in part of the lack of “copy” as the number of publications, conferences, and the other aspects related to the history of sugar experienced something of a dip, rather ironically just as the literature criticizing the world-wide consumption of sugar has been on the rise. It also was because Jock was no longer able to provide the essential material that made the Newsletter a newsletter. I have never claimed to be a sugar specialist and my involvement in the Newsletter has always been rather limited: I came on board primarily to assist in the mechanics of producing first the printed and later the web edition. Without Jock’s vital input the Newsletter began to suffer with regard to the information provided, and as this is not going to change, I have decided - reluctantly - with the present issue to bring the Newsletter to a close. I have mentioned this to a couple of people who have shared my distress, and if there is anyone out there who would like to take over, to give the Newsletter "the kiss of life", as Bill phrased it many years ago, I would certainly be willing to assist them, continuing what I have done in the past. The site of the Newsletter remains secure at the University of Toronto, so the issues will always be available to interested readers. In bidding farewell I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the pages of the Newsletter over the years, to those who have contacted us with questions, suggestions, and support, and to those of you who have seen fit to read our humble addition to what remains a fascinating topic of historical research and debate.

Peter Blanchard


Daniel Strum, The Sugar Trade: Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands (1595–1630). Translated by Colin Foulkes, Roopanjali Roy, and H. Sabrina Gledhill (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013). 537 pp. $100.00. ISBN 978-0804787215.

The Sugar Trade - it must be said at first - is very odd for an academic work. It is an extremely large, hard-cover volume, lushly furnished with gorgeous, full-color illustrations, and weighing almost ten pounds. It appears to be a hybrid of a detailed scholarly monograph and a coffee-table book. Some of this confusion in presentation is a result of its origins in the History Prize of the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, which in most years pays to produce one or more similar volumes. Odebrecht has in this case also produced the English translation in cooperation with Stanford University Press, the volume that is reviewed here. The size of the book raises issues about its accessibility and appropriateness for classroom use. That said, the work contains considerable scholarly merit, and the illustrations are appropriate to the material and often very instructive in their own right. As Strum admits in his acknowledgements, the project envisioned by the corporate sponsors was to write a book accessible to both specialists and non-specialists. This means that some chapters will be either too specialized, or not enough, for individual readers. However, most chapters function well at a level appropriate to a specialized scholarly audience.

The work follows on the publication of two other works that treat the same subject, one by Leonor Costa, and the other by me.1 The work does not offer a new synthesis or a revision of these works, but rather adds to a developing consensus about the importance of the early sugar trade from Brazil as an important spur to the formation of disparate but inter-linked merchant groups in long-distance trade. The business solutions that they sought to facilitate this particular trade at both the wholesale and retail levels were an important part of the story of early-modern capitalism. Sugar from Brazil also prompted either the expansion or new development of auxiliary industries in a number of towns, from shipbuilding to refining. Brazilian output and trade also made sugar in its many forms a critical component of European elite diets, setting the stage for the massive rise in consumption that characterized later phases of European and Atlantic history. Given the very high level of research support he was offered by Odebrecht, Professor Strum has been able to trace these developments at a level of detail hitherto lacking in the scholarly literature.

The book is organized into ten major chapters. Beyond the introduction, the first two chapters synthesize at a high degree of generalization the political events that frame Strum’s arguments. The second chapter then describes the movement of sugar from the Eastern Mediterranean to Africa and then to Brazil. These parts of the work do not present a new story or rely on new material to any significant extent and will offer little to a specialist reader. The third chapter, “Into the Mouth”, continues promising work on early consumption of sugar by Eddy Stols, and presents a very interesting case study of early modern consumption, and a chapter that can stand alone.2 It is richly enhanced by the illustrations that show how sugar consumption had conquered the artistic imagination as well, especially of Golden Age Dutch still-life painters.

Chapters four and five deal with routes, ports, and shipping in general. While interesting and well written, they add little to previous works on the topic, especially those by Costa and Ebert, and they have more of a synthetic quality. Here again, though, the illustrations are marvelous and wonderfully complement the text.

It is in chapters six through ten that the meticulous archival research that Strum did with his international team really yield an impressive level of analysis. These chapters deal respectively with shipping arrangements, systems of payment, extension of credit, merchant organization, and information exchange. They are extremely well contextualized and informed by a wide reading in the relevant scholarship, and they should function as a standard reference for some years to come for scholars interested in the development of early-modern capitalism. The level of complementarity between the text and illustrations reaches an especially high level in these chapters. The images of coins, letters, texts and other material manifestations of complex financial instruments are often quite fascinating.

These final five chapters point to the larger significance of the Brazilian sugar trade, which operated in many respects on medieval Mediterranean principles. At the same time, it both overlapped temporally and contributed to a new phase in handling long distance commerce, one which was dominated by the burgeoning global financial capital, Amsterdam. As Strum concludes: “In order to overcome [. . .] challenges and ensure that their operations were more secure, effective and profitable, merchants used a range of well-established and newly developed techniques, instruments, mechanisms and institutions, both formal and informal.” Strum’s meticulous documentation of these developments, as well as the accompanying illustrations, will reward historians of capitalism more generally.

Christopher Ebert
Brooklyn College

1. Leonor Freire Costa, O transporte no Atlântico e a Companhia Geral do Comércio do Brasil (1580-1663) (Lisbon: Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 2002), 2 vols.; Christopher Ebert, Between Empires: Brazilian Sugar in the Early Atlantic Economy, 1550-1630 (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008). It is unfortunate that Strum used my dissertation for this work, as the book based on it had appeared well before he launched this project.

2. Eddy Stols, “The Expansion of the Sugar Market in Western Europe,” in Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).


David Carey (ed.), Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012). xi, 212 pp., $74.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0813041629.

Rich Cohen, “Sugar Love: A Not-so Sweet Story,” National Geographic, August 2013.

Dave St Aubyn Gosse, Abolition and Plantation Management in Jamaica: 1807-1838 (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2012). xii + 236 pp., $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-976-640-269-3.


A conference entitled “Sugar and Slavery: towards a New World History” took place 17-19 November 2012 in Tokyo, Japan. The following website contains information about the conference and details of the papers that were delivered:

This issue of the World Sugar History Newsletter has been compiled by Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S1K7, or by e-mail to: